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In some games (Shadowrun for example), you can take a negative quality to balance your character in the form of addiction. I was considering either a Moderate or Severe Addiction negative quality for a Shadowrun character, as it would be an interesting role-playing experience, but other than an addiction to caffeine, I have no experience with addiction.

My question is: What advice can you give on how to role-play someone with a moderate to serious addiction? Shadowrun was given as an example, but the system doesn't really matter. What source material, books and/or other media would you recommend for role-playing this?

Bonus points: How would you role-play trying to overcome an addiction?


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7 Answers 7

up vote 9 down vote accepted

In General

Addictions are something that are difficult to handle without rules support, because they tend to deal with something that is both outside your character's control, and completely alien to many players.

The key to roleplaying an addiction is to understand that your character is fundamentally not rational. The addiction is effectively attacking the decision centers of the character's brain, and elevating its own importance.

What you need to do, is imagine that keeping current with the drug has some reward attached to it... The more serious the addiction, the larger the reward.

The kinds of questions you need to be asking yourself are:

Would you leave your post for a million dollars?

Would you leave your post to save the life of a loved one?

Would you take a small penalty on the next adventure in exchange for more experience?

Clearly, the answer won't always be yes. The trick is getting the scale of the reward right... And to have the discipline to evaluate the decision as though your character were actually getting the reward (even though they aren't). Rules support helps with this quite a bit in many systems.

As Acedrummer notes, there are a number of potential pitfalls to the situation:

  • Don't be addicted to something so nasty that you'll become a major liability to the party (unless your group is really into that sort of thing). This is a general good practice: Don't put yourself at direct odds with your group. Annoying them can work, but don't take it beyond that.

  • Be aware of how optimally people at the table expect eachother to play. You are essentially playing poorly for the sake of the experience... Make sure that you have the right group for that.

Overcoming the addiction

So far as I'm concerned, this is something that should be handled primarily in-system. It has a lot to do with factors outside your character's control (their willpower, availability of help, supporting environment, and so on). Treat it like you would combat: make the roll, and then roleplay around the result.

The main point to note here is that, again, your character probably doesn't really WANT to kick the habit (even if they do). It can be treated as a tradeoff between the benefits of kicking the habit and some fictional reward, if you have the discipline to pull that off (it's harder than it sounds).

Also, if you received points for taking the addiction, you should generally repay them upon kicking the habit.


I'd say you should first analyze the mechanical aspects of the addiction before deciding how to roleplay it ie:

First, think about how this will affect the character

  • How hard is the addiction ? Does the character desperately need her fix or can she go for a few days before she feels withdrawal ?
  • What are the effects of the substance ? Is it toxic ? Does it actually cause damage or mainly side-effects (hallucinations, slow reflexes...) ?
  • Is the substance hard to come by ? Does the character have to go out of his way to get his drug of choice ? Depending on the setting, cocaine may be common and not even that expensive, while procuring a special variety of mystical mushroom may open a subplot of its own.
  • What are the effects of withdrawal ? Does the character go berserk and scar herself in pain ? Does she feel so weak that she can't move a finger ?

Once you've answered those questions, you've got about 90% of the work done. They should help you determine whatever "drawback/background/disadvantage" trait suits your character in your ruleset and its associated cost/benefit (in "advantage points" and such).

And then your answers will lay the groundwork for your player to roleplay his addiction.

Re: Bonus) Getting rid of any addiction of a moderate severity and beyond should probably involve a rehab of some sort. The character will probably be close to incapacitated by it when it comes into play anyway, so retiring for a while may be the wiser decision. Of course, the first part of getting rid of a problem is acknowledging its existence, denial being very frequent in the low and moderate stages.

Also note : Though the GM remains the authority on deciding if and when the character may recover, the player should be the one deciding that the addiction gets worse at some point.


I would try to avoid systemic ways to handle it-(especially since you leave it as system neutral). A PC with an addiction should be left up to the creativity and whims of the player running the character. Maybe he wants it to be "for roleplaying purposes only" and not really affect him when he isn't interested.

However, that said, it's always cool to make suggestions, and often enough player characters will willingly go along with a plan that negatively impacts them if it seems to provide interesting details.

For example: If this were D&D, and a character that had an addiction to say.. some fantasy drug that was described as severe, I might suggest that a PC take a hit on interaction checks (skill checks and even initiative) that did not directly involve pursuing the addiction.. but with the promise that when scenes involved directly pursuing the addiction or hiding it (via bluff, etc) the PC might get a bonus. If the player wasn't cool with that, I'd shrug and move on. There are certainly characters that say "my character is always drinking!" and have it be rollicking fun that never affects anyone. And then you get PCs who want to delve into the dramatic effects of full-on alcoholism. There's a spectrum, obviously.

I'd find out if the player was interested in a redemption story or a skid-row type tragedy and use that as inspiration for adventures. I might also set up situations where (this is a bit 'unfair' but it fits the genre) the addicted character gets to make a choice between a "pursuing-the-addiction" scene and a "helping the party" scene, and the point is- all choices work out a bit negatively- but dramatically for the PC. (Pursuing the addiction should screw the rest of the group over slightly and increase distrust, call the addicted PCs reliability and motives into question, but helping the party leaves the addicted character at a reduced ability to function).

This might sound railroady, but also sometimes the player should make choices and get overruled by the addiction itself (in the form of a dice roll)- ie the character chose to stay clean, but pressure happened and a failed save later and the PC finds himself unable to function at the dinner party/investigation/battle.

The danger is- this kind of dramatism is spotlight stealing to a degree. Make sure you use it sparingly, in a way that doesn't detract from the other PCs. Another option is to designate certain gaming sessions to be "spotlight episodes" for various characters, so that its ok to have that one PC hog the spotlight during that one session, and for the other PCs to do the intervention.. and next week it will be the the PC that chose to be an unwed mother or something.

Absolutely well said! –  Acedrummer_CLB Dec 28 '10 at 18:14

The Shadow of Yesterday mechanically addresses addiction just fine. In the system Secrets are little character flags you can choose that usually, but not always, provide some benefit. Addiction is on the less beneficial end of the spectrum. From the TSOY wiki (this will make more sense if you know the game, but anyway):

Secret of Addiction

Your character is addicted to a substance or behavior. You cannot refresh any pools if it has been longer than a day since your character took part in this addiction. In addition, your character can never refresh Vigor normally: instead, he only refreshes Vigor through taking part in this addiction. This refreshment can only happen once per day, but there is a boon. Your character can take part in the addiction, however, as often you like, and one point of Vigor is returned each time after the first refreshment of the day. You can break this addiction if you have the Key of the Affliction. The character must abstain from the substance or behavior. At the end of each day doing so, make a Resist roll. If the roll is successful for five straight days, the addiction is broken and you can refresh Vigor normally. If any roll is failed, start over. The secret is kept and if the character ever takes part in the addiction again, it returns.

In the game, Goblin PCs are required to start with an addiction. it works out pretty well as a way to generate interesting conflicts and dilemmas. The nice thing about this is that the player chooses it, which means it is interesting and relevant to him or her, and can choose to fight against it as part of character growth and development.

So regardless of system, I'd suggest giving players the power to explore addiction if they want to, and only if they want to. Give them logical consequences, mechanically or not, and see where it takes them.


If you want this to be dramatically interesting, rather than just a mechanical effect, I think you need to ask what the character is getting from their addiction. What does the source of their addiction do for them? Is it energy, excitement, pain relief, euphoria, or just a good night's sleep? Then ask what it is about their life or their psyche that means they can't have that without their fix. Once you know that, you have a better idea of how their addiction will affect their behaviour and what they need to address to overcome it.


Most sentient beings appreciate nuances, the lush spectrum of mental and physical aspects of existence. By contrast, an Addict places a premium on the achievement of a specific pleasure, and over a period of time that simplistic dichotomy of feelGood/feelBad displaces nuanced reality and eventually replaces it entirely.

Addiction may involve substances (food, alcohol, legal or illegal drugs), behaviors (gambling, pessimism, spousal abuse, animal cruelty), or combinations thereof (fetishes et al.).

Within a game, mechanics of an addition may be arbitrarily categorized (slight, moderate, extreme) or sliding-scale rated (no arbitrary dividing lines), the former being simplistic but more easily adjudicated, the latter more complex but more realistic.

Obviously the role played is dependent on the type of Addiction and the game mechanics used to represent the condition.

General guidelines:

An individual with a full/major Addiction will be focused on its fulfillment. That is the most important aspect of existence, all else being secondary. All revenues will be expended in support of the Addiction, and even food is considered secondary, to a point. The character ignores or is barely aware of the negative effects, and may occasionally regret the result, but generally discounts them as irrelevant in comparison to the joys obtained. NOTE that this level of Addiction overrides the activities common to player characters in the game, and is equivalent to character retirement, being a 'wasted life' and/or termination (in the case of physically destructive addictions).

An individual with a new/minor Addiction has tasted its first joys, has taken the first step on that devastating road, but suffers few or none of the adverse/unplayable points above. All that lurks in the future, and will emerge little by little, the speed of degeneration being the primary variable. The character probably recognizes the potential negative side effects but will increasingly discount them as the Addiction progresses.

Pragmatically the game master and player should assess the deleterious effects as metrics (such as specific losses of physical qualities, if applicable) and decide in advance how far to take this before retiring the character (assuming that the Addiction is not surmounted). One alternative is semi-retirement, bringing the character back into play for a specific purpose (usually of short duration), the character being effective only as long as the Addiction is fulfilled, enabling some minor activity not focused on the Addiction (minor to that character but possibly crucial to others with a viewpoint less skewed).

. . .

Finally, as to overcoming the Addition, it of course depends on the type and degree. You can probably find an existing game feature -- spells, counter-drugs (possibly life-long), therapy, or whatever -- to at least stop the deterioration (adjudicating unremovable permanent aftereffects, if any) and possibly to reverse those effects and even restore the whole character. In some cases a full cure may be possible. I would urge that a complete solution be found and made available, for optimal end results, unless your game is based on tragedy and/or personal angst (such as some Goth styles).

A notable roleplaying effect (in later stages of remission and after the fact) would be the character's attitudes with regard to the Addition, the substance/behavior, and toward others who are on that path. Would the character become a crusader against, or a savior of, such people or things? ...or indifferent, or some combination?


I would use two dnd novels sets to assist with this. If you dont know about the character Raistlin Majere he was completely addicted to magic, and power. He was willing to goto any lengths go gain more magic and power, even killing his brother. These novels handle addiction well, and how to handle it in a game from a role-playing aspect. Another more recent would be the books by Paul S Kemp. He has a female character who is addicted to a substance and how describes how she is willing to do anything at times for it, and is nearly always thinking about it.


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